In August 1938, Astounding Science-Fiction published a novella by John W. Campbell (then using his pen name, Don A. Stuart) about Antarctic researchers that discover a frozen alien ship and it’s pilot; a monster that assumes the shape and personality of whomever it attacks. Since then, Campbell’s story (Who Goes There?) has been adapted several times in several mediums, including comic books, radio drama (2002) and video games. The most notable works, however, are two of the three motion picture versions of the story (the latest being Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s 2011 prequel). The first is the 1951 Howard Hawks-produced The Thing from Another World, and John Carpenter’s 1982 remake The Thing. Within this triad, the same basic story of a menacing space creature attacking unsuspecting scientists in frigid environments is being presented. However, while there are several overlaps, there are significant changes between these three versions of the story. It adapts to whatever medium it happens to find itself in, making use of what the particular art form offers and/or changing itself to (in some cases) gain relevance in a social context. This is, of course, not unlike the infamous monster that all three works share, though portray in very different ways.
In Campbell’s story, it is not immediately established that the monster can imitate other life. In fact, unlike John Carpenter’s film version, it is described in its original state before it takes over anything else. The group’s lead physicist, Connant (who has already been absorbed), describes the monster as having a “split skull [that] was oozing green goo, like a squashed caterpillar…Well, it’s an unearthly monster, with an unearthly disposition, judging by the face, wandering around with a split skull and brains oozing out.” This works best for prose because, although a rough description is offered, the reader still has plenty of room to use his or her imagination to determine what the original creature could look like. This was one of John Carpenter’s central notions when making The Thing. In a short introduction he made for a screening of The Thing at the Fantastic Films Weekend at the National Media Museum in Bradford, Carpenter stated the “kind of secret of the movie…which was, ‘the thing’ can look like anything. It doesn’t have to look like one creature.”
The other work in this triad that presents the monster in its original form is Hawks’ The Thing from Another World. This is because, in this version of the story, the monster does not take over other beings at all. It is presented at first as a tall, humanoid figure (James Arness in copious amounts of then-impressive creature make-up) that simply attacks the antarctic crew. The nature of the monster is changed even further, as it is established as an advanced form of plant life with the ability of reproduction through the use of seed pods. The following is a scene from the film explaining this aspect of the creature by way of Dr. Carrington’s (the crew’s chief scientist) notes. The film was shot in black and white, the following clip has been colorized (start at 1:40):
So, although the monster maintains the ability to reproduce itself, it does so in a much different way than in Campbell’s original story or Carpenter’s later adaptation. This gives way to a commercially successful horror film, but it didn’t have much to differentiate itself from other genre “popcorn flicks”. A review in Variety commented that even “the cast members fail to communicate any real terror”, which is more than apparent in scenes like the following, one of many awkward flirtatious moments between Margaret Sheridan (this is the only work in this triad with female characters) and Kenneth Tobey. Start at 1:35:
Many viewers also saw Thing from Another World as somewhat allegorical for the threat of Communism. As the “red scare” reached critical mass in the 1950′s, this was a particularly strong idea in Hollywood, especially when it came to monster movies. An article by Eric Smoodin describes it as a time when these movies were subtle devices used to “alert us to how vulnerable we are to a powerfully technologized and intellectual enemy from far, far away.” When mentioning Thing from Another World, Smoodin states that it is an excellent example of the “fear of the Soviets which 1950′s culture tried to produce, as well as the emphasis on ‘typical’ American values which work as the only protection against the Soviet menace.” This can be seen numerous times throughout the film in the team’s constant break-taking and wise-cracking, even though there is a murderous vegetable running rampant in their isolated north pole (this is also the only work in this triad not set in Antarctica) facility. Although a major difference from Campbell’s original story and it’s other iterations, this subtext demonstrates the story’s ability to not only change between mediums but acquire new meaning. In this case, this happens by way of a social commentary relevant to the era.
The last work in this triad, John Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing, sought to return to the certain type of fear that Campbell established in Who Goes There? by once again having a monster with the ability to absorb and imitate other beings. Although the story had already been adapted to film, there had been many advances in practical and special effects since The Thing from Another World was made. This allowed greater freedom in showing viewers the nature of the thing, especially when it was in the process of taking over other life forms or protecting itself. An example of some innovative effects work can be seen in the following clip:
Although the story was meant to be more reflective of the original novella, some aspects were changed or intensified. Carpenter’s film played heavily on the paranoia aspect of Campbell’s story, in that none of the characters knew who to trust because it was impossible to tell who was absorbed and who wasn’t. In Who Goes There?, the research team purposefully dismantle their helicopters and other vehicles to keep themselves isolated, and give regularly scheduled reports over the radio communicating that all is as it should be in order to drive away any suspicion from other facilities. In The Thing, however, the isolation is beyond the characters’ control. One of the assimilated team members destroys their only helicopter, and the radio has been malfunctioning due to rough weather. Another tweaked aspect of the story can be seen in how the characters eventually try to determine which members of the team are human and which have been absorbed. A blood test is used in Who Goes There? to determine whether or not a sample is purely human. The following excerpt describes one of the tests:
“A little glass test-tube, half-filled with straw-colored fluid. One-two-three-four-five drops of the clear solution Dr. Copper had prepared from the drops of blood from Connant’s arm. The tube was shaken carefully, then set in a beaker of clear, warm water. The thermometer read blood heat, a little thermostat clicked noisily, and the electric hotplate began to glow as the lights flickered slightly. Then – little white flecks of precipitation were forming, snowing down the straw-colored fluid.”
A similar strategy is used in The Thing. However, instead of exposing a blood sample to another solution, heat is used. Theoretically, the blood of a thing will react in trying to defend itself, since each part of the creature is its own organism with the ability to attack and absorb. The test that plays out in Carpenter’s film is a little less subtle:
Campbell’s Who Goes There?, Hawks’ The Thing from Another World and Carpenter’s The Thing are three iterations of the same basic story. However, they are each almost entirely unique in the way they tell it. The story morphs in reaction to the medium it finds itself in, current events, etc. In a sense, the story, much like its subject matter, is an adaptive organism in and of itself.
Campbell, John. Who Goes There?. New York: Dell Magazines, 1938. Print.
John Carpenter’s Fantastic Film Weekend screening introduction:
Smoodin, E. (1988), Watching the Skies: Hollywood, the 1950s, and the Soviet Threat. Journal of American Culture, 11: 35–40
Variety Staff. “The Thing from Another World.” Variety. 31 Dec 1950. Print.